Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Revised Classics: Julia’s Bistro & Bar Departs From Tried-and-True French Cuisine with Visits to Latin America and the U.S.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 29, 2020 at 2:10 PM

  • Courtesy of Julia's Bistro & Bar
Who knows if this is some form of atonement for past brutish behavior, but according to an article in Eater, there was a recent wave of male restaurateurs naming their establishments after women. Beyond a possible attempt to make up for bad behavior, there may also be a marketing rationale, according to the piece. A woman’s name connotes “warmth, caring and hospitality.”

The naming of Julia’s Bistro & Bar, the latest restaurant venture by Jean-Francois Poujol, may or may not be a result of this movement, but there’s more to it than trend tracking: for a restaurant with French underpinnings, Julia’s also evokes that American icon of Gallic gourmandise, Julia Child. If you think that this implies the bistro, a mere door away from Poujol’s European-Italian operation SoHill Café, is meant to be a temple of French haute cuisine, think again.

“I also have a niece named Julia,” he explained.

Adjust accordingly — and selectively. The moules marinière come across as an unadulterated classic: beautiful mussels bathed in wine and garlic and served, if you plead for more, with just enough bread to sponge up as much of that exquisite sauce as possible. The same pillowy baguette, sliced lengthwise, is the underpinning for escargot toast. It may sound typique, but I’ve never seen it in this opulent form, slathered with mushroom duxelle, topped with tender snails, oozing with melted brie and lashed with mild Pernod butter and garlic. The serving is more than generous, and you should share it — but you’re forgiven if you don’t. At least, I’ve forgiven myself.

Also on the small plates section, you’ll find the lamb chili relleno, a dish that departs from France to take a tour of Mexico and South America. Here Chef Zack McKinney takes an unusually slender roasted poblano chile, stuffs it with braised lamb and goat cheese, coats it, seriously deep fries it and tops the whole with chimichurri sauce. There’s a little lost lamb hiding in here somewhere, but I couldn’t get over the overbearing, crunchy coating.

Lamb and duck both figure frequently on Julia’s menu. One of the best expressions of duck is in the confit salad with arugula, tiny tomatoes and a snappy dressing: the moist and decadent duck is a perfect playmate for the bitter greens. Grilled frisée au lardon was less successful. Maybe it would have shone with a sturdier lettuce and a runnier poached egg.

Joined by Mexican chorizo, lamb and duck duke it out in Julia’s cassoulet, a white bean dish from Southwestern France. Cassoulet is one of those deceptively difficult “peasant” dishes that differs among regional cities and more than rewards the several days that can be spent in its making. One version involves a crust of breadcrumbs that gets stirred back into the mix several times. Garlic sausage often figures prominently. Julia’s rendition shortcuts a lot of the complication, and I admit that I prefer sturdier sausage to the dispersed chorizo, yet this is the quintessential winter dish. There are good pops of garlic and thyme-accented flavor, and it makes a pedestrian glass of Côtes du Rhône taste almost patrician. The wine list, by the way, offers some thoughtful selections at reasonable prices.

The lamb shows the best of chez Julia in classically braised, shank form. It’s big, beautiful, fall-from-the-bone tender and unashamed of its lamby flavor. And if I found the brown sauce it’s served with a little overpowering, the plate’s sweet potato purée and wilted arugula more than compensated. Straying substantially from its coq au vin roots is the hybrid-sounding chicken au vin — with mole sauce and poblano-laced mashed potatoes, no less. There’s not a lot of wine to be noted, but the Franco-Mexican mashup almost works.

If the shrimp and grits is an attempt to bring a little bit of the almost unadulterated South to the menu, the results are less convincing. There’s supposed to be Mexican chorizo, “Cajun trinity” — onion, bell pepper and celery — and ragout, but all this and the shrimp take a back seat to the creamy grits lightly flavored with smoked cheddar.

Smoked cheddar shines in an even less expected way in a dessert, the so-called apple dumpling — really more like a turnover. This time, the cheese is successfully showcased in ice cream. In an odd way, the item may be the most “American” dish on the Julia’s eclectic menu — a riff on cheddar cheese with apple pie, and it works beautifully. It should probably be said at this point, that the service is more friendly American than stand-offish French, if you’ll excuse the stereotype.

The American doyenne of French cuisine would likely have approved of the subtle tweaks her namesake — or not — kitchen gives to a classique of the dessert canon: pôt de crème. It’s made here with Mexican chocolate topped with crème Chantilly subtly scented with cinnamon. Cool and caring no matter the culture.

Julia’s Bistro & Bar
1725 Blanco Road, (210) 476-5404,
Tues.-Thur. 4-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4-10 p.m.
Entrées: $14-$24
Best Bets: Escargot toast, duck confit salad, moules marinière, braised lamb shank, Julia’s cassoulet, apple dumpling with smoked cheddar ice cream
The Skinny: If the name of Julia’s Bistro evokes that famous Julia of French food fame, that’s fine with Jean-Francois Poujol, the restaurant’s owner — just don’t expect Child’s classic version. Expect instead dishes from the totally traditional moules marinière and braised lamb shank to Franco-Mex mashups such as chicken breast in wine with mole sauce and American-influenced apple turnovers with smoked cheddar ice cream. The lighting is terrible at Julia’s, but the service is Texas-friendly — and there’s a good wine list to smooth over any rough edges.

Editor's Note: A previous version of the story identified Justin Limburg as the chef at Julia's. Chef Zack McKinney leads Julia's kitchen, while Limburg leads SoHill Cafe.
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